Human Rights and Radical Social Change: Liberalism, Marxism and Progressive Populism in Venezuela
Defense in Context: Supporters of Chávismo and the Venezuelan Project
One of the underpinning counterclaims of those who support the Chávismo project and ideology is the while there are questionable activities in the civil and political area, there has been no doubt that there have been impressive improvements in the economic and social realm. This effectively amounts to the classic Marxist position in which economic and social well being is valued higher than civil and political liberties.67 For instance, in Gregory Wilpert’s response to the HRW report in defense of the Venezuelan state, he writes;
...if one were to take economic rights seriously, it would be almost silly to claim that attention to courts, media, labor unions, and civil society are more important, since people who do not have their basic economic rights guaranteed, and are thus too busy finding food and shelter, are generally incapable of taking advantage of these institutions. HRW's emphasis on political rights thus reflects its bias towards the better off, who are already able to enjoy their economic and social rights without restriction.68
Even more, in response to a prominent member of HRW, saying Venezuela was not a model, Wilpert also says the following:
Certainly, if the Venezuelan government were a systematic violator of human rights, no one would say that such practices should be a model. Rather, the model that Chavez and his supporters defend (and Chavez himself has always said that every country should find its own path) are the policies that go against free market capitalism and in favor of redistribution of wealth and of political power.69To say that redistribution of wealth and political cannot happen without some idea of systematically violating certain liberal human rights is quite naive. Highlighting these two quotes is meant to point out the dangerous position of both--one which recognizes political rights to be less important than economic ones, and another which supports an untenable political position that could lead to willful ignorance (if one does not recognize the intrinsic violence of the state, then one defends such as an “accident”). This section is intended to point out how the defense of Venezuela in the face of the HRW report, on the sections on political discrimination, media and trade unions, follows the logic of Marxist human rights theory.
In the “political discrimination” section of the HRW report, the infamous"Tascón list," which was created by National Assembly member Luis Tascón by posting on his personal website the names of the signers of the petition for a presidential recall referendum, is given special attention.70 This list was used, admittedly, by government officials to screen job applicants. Defenders of this policy claimed that while political affiliation should not be used as a criterion for hiring, the defense is that the case by case legal procedure to prove sabotage in a specific position is entirely too slow to be effectual and thus the use of blacklisting is understandable.
This again amounts to basically a defense of the political ideology of the state to discriminate in the name of security (to usher in a new socioeconomic model). As mentioned above, the systemic nature of political discrimination is a specific result of populism and its tendency towards favoritism. When the defenders of the government make the claim that political discrimination is necessary in order to avoid sabotage or willful undermining of the state they take a step down the road that Marxism has blazed in which corruption and authoritarianism are allowed the creep into institutions in the name of security and defense of an emancipatory political project.
New laws surrounding the media have let to what HRW called “self-censorship” because of the increased penalties and fines for certain transgressions.71 That treatment of journalists is also alarming, especially because of the fragile political climate of the country. A new media law under consideration, after the HRW report, in 2009, in which highly ambiguous language and framing included such dubious possibilities as a law where “journalists could face up to four years in prison for publishing material deemed to harm state stability.”72 The stifling of free speech is an original tenet of transitional regimes that employ the Marxist logic towards human rights detailed earlier.
Additionally, the difference between public television and state television has become negligible, as the new community television stations are largely supported by the state and given access to airwaves from the state. The private sector, which supported the 2002 coup, oil strike and constantly engages in lambasting president Chávez, has become subject to the logic of Marxist authoritarianism, suppression, since it is seen as both a political opponent and a vestige of a corrupt past. In a sense, the defenders of the Venezuelan state and the Chávismo movement see that since the private media channels are vehemently opposed to the new political project, to the point of usurping the law, and since they are largely monopolistic, they should be replaced by state backed television and suppressed.
The influence of government in trade unions is specifically interesting case in Venezuela as it related to the freedom of association. The HRW report claims that the union elections are compromised by the supervision of the government, that collective bargaining is denied to unrecognized unions, and that the government undermines the right to strike.73 This is troubling in so far as the logic of Marxism has had a historically tough time determining the trade union problem. Given the nature of Chávismo populism combined with the emancipatory logic of Marxism, one can imagine this issue will not be solved easily, if at all. Since the Venezuelan state sees itself as taking a decidedly pro-working class position, trade unions that do not align themselves with the state are almost guaranteed to be considered, at least on a base level, corrupt or reactionary. Just the implicit ideology brings into question the independence of trade unions and gives credence to HRW’s concerns.
Looking at these three areas, political discrimination, the media, and organized labor, the defense of the Venezuelan project and ideology assumes the logic of Marxist human rights theory to the extent that it defends authoritarianism and suppression of dissent.
Thought there are many areas of concern related to the Venezuelan state, Chávismo and human rights, the previous analysis should suffice to paint the picture of how the human rights discourse functions within a specific case study, as it applies to several limited, but important, aspects. What should be entirely apparent through this analysis is how it is paradoxical; neither of the two positions are posited as correct on any position even though it seems as though it is presented as if these are the two only visible or viable options (which they are, generally). This is to reemphasize the nature of the “double blackmail” that is plaguing the discourse of political and social change today. Either one supports violations to freedom and human dignity in the name of the Venezuelan transformative state, or one rejects these violations and objectively thus rejects any progressive radical social change.
The point is that neither of these positions is tenable. One must admit that all states commit human rights violations. One cannot support the liberal theory, as it blocks radical progressive change and one cannot support the Venezuelan emancipatory position since it defends authoritarianism based on inviable populism. The problem is not so much the violation of human dignity (rights, laws, etc.) but in what name they are violated.
Thus, to rehash, the indispensable point of analysis is that of a the political ideology and project. With this section completed, and the paradox restated, we can now move to the final section; the conclusion which will look at the prospects of the future for Venezuela and Chávismo populism as well as this authors suggestion and observations of the prospects for radical, progressive and emancipatory political ideology and project.
Conclusion: Prospects for the Future of Chávismo
The bulk of this paper has been written in order to delegitimize, deconstruct and make inviable the political ideology and project of Chávismo and the Venezuelan state’s idea of socialism. The reason for this is because of the aforementioned recognition of the violent nature of the state. If one is to support a political ideology and project, it must be viable, worthy and legitimate--especially if it functions as a radical, progressive and emancipatory one. While currently Chávismo does not fit this criterion, it is not impossible that this will change.
As mentioned earlier, populism’s positive aspect lies in how it often ushers in a new mass democracy that transcends the old, traditional, and oligarchical politics, providing a new sense of dignity and self-respect for lower class sectors of society, who are encouraged to recognize that they possess both social and political rights. The negative aspect of traditional populism was its effect on democratic citizenship. Populism requires the “privileged link” between the masses through electoral functions and acclimations, but once in power, this leadership provided few institutional means by which citizens can participate in the functioning of government or hold it accountable.
Elections were thus merely delegative formalities where the masses choose who to give authority and then retreat to a paternalistic position. It is in this regard that the unique nature of Chávismo populism holds hope. The 1999 constitution and constant mandates from Chávez himself provide the institutional groundwork for the possibility of multiple forms of democratic participation from citizens. These include, but are not limited to, communal councils that have the potential for legitimate allocative responsibilities and political power, participatory budgeting in which citizens can take part in their local governments by auditing them for records, and attempts at forms of workplace democracy where forms of co-management act as a check to government influence in nationalized firms.74
The question regarding these new forms of democratic participation is; to what extent are these new forms institutionalized and how will they play a concrete role in decision making and influence upon the state. It is one thing to have these idealistic proposals put down on paper, and another to have them work efficiently within the state and civil apparatus. The overarching positive aspect of populism is that it can open up a rift in ideological hegemony and ossification, creating space for democratic thinking and control that goes beyond the limitations of populism. It is not beyond hope that the discourse of democracy and participation is taken more seriously by the people it affects, thus turning them against the populist bureaucracy, discourse and its limiting configuration.
Laclau’s theory of populism employs a hope of this sort; an analysis of populism that sees its most progressive aspects being re-articulated into a form of socialism. Laclau’s conclusion of populism, from a decidedly Marxist position, is that; “...the highest and most radical form of populism, is that whose class interests lead it to the suppression of the State as an antagonistic force.” Moreover;
In socialism, therefore, coincide the highest form of ‘populism’ and the resolution of the ultimate and most radical of class conflicts. The dialectic between ‘the people’ and classes finds here the final moment of its unity: there is no socialism without populism, and the highest forms of populism can only be socialist.75
In this sense, it is not impossible for a populist movement to change into a radical project that employs a more systemic analysis of the antagonisms of a given society. But Laclau’s mistake is to suggest that populism is an aspect of radical movements that is inherent and continuous instead of initial and something to be overcome. Again, Zizek acts as a corrective to Laclau, drawing attention to the vastly critical and eclipsing point about populism that overwhelms its other aspects:
[T]here is a constitutive mystification that pertains to populism. Its basic gesture is to refuse to confront the complexity of the situation, to reduce it to a clear struggle with a pseudoconcrete enemy figure. So not only is populism not the area within which today’s emancipatory projects should inscribe themselves, one should go a step further and propose that the main task of today’s emancipatory politics, its life-and-death problem, is to find a form of political mobilization that, although (like populism) critical of institutionalized politics, avoids the populist temptation.76
And, to employ an earlier quote from Zizek again, furthermore:
[T]he ultimate difference between true radical-emancipatory politics and populist politics is that authentic radical politics is active, imposing, enforcing its vision, while populism is fundamentally reactive, a reaction to a disturbing intruder.77
Accordingly, as long as the discourse of populism employs the rhetoric of the “disturbing intruder” or the “alien element” that affects social unity, it can never truly be a bearer of emancipatory radical politics or a be an element within it. It lacks a long term vision or unitary ideology with which to actively impose itself. It is reactive in the sense that it waits for the contradictions of society to emerge and creates attempts at solutions based on these reactions. Chávez’ “reaction” to the 2002 coup attempt and the 2003 strike is an unparalleled example of this tendency. Faced with a major contradiction, he first attempted a policy of moderate conciliation and when that did not work adopted a radical rhetoric and policy that was fundamentally a “reaction” to a “disturbing” element.
In very direct terms, there is a question of whether Chávez and the Chávista government has the ability and ideological fortitude to grapple with the difficult organizational, sociological, economic and political issues that arise from populism and come out the other side with something workable. It may be that Chávismo does not have the tools necessary to construct a viable and sustainable political and economic framework, and that an alternative is imperative.
Additionally, there is the danger that Chávez has been caught in a cycle that leads him to believe that governance is not complicated and that he is a leader of the people whose large and vague ideas are all that is needed to radically transform society. The simple truth may be that despite the limitations of populism, there are few obstacles to the ability to lead a movement and a country with some degree of popularity if you have an expensive resources that are in massive demand. But the obverse and hopeful hypothesis is that populism is inherently unsustainable and that eventually its limitations will be overcome. In regards to the contemporary developments in Latin America and Venezuela, building on this hypothesis continues, and will continue, to be of the utmost significance and importance.
On Theory: The Future of Human Rights and the Radical Project
To answer two of the questions posed in the introduction; if the discourse of human rights cannot incorporate a theory of radical social change, what justification, if any, is there for abandoning it? and; if the horns of “human rights violations” are to be sounded every time a society attempts to move beyond the institutions connected to liberal human rights theory, can it be legitimate to ignore them?; It depends on the viability, worthiness and legitimacy of the political project and ideology. It is here that I should be clear; in no way does this imply that my own personal opinions of such qualifiers on a global basis. What determines viability, worthiness and legitimacy can only be based on a case by case study of a movement or country, and depends on the organic conditions of the struggle within that situation.
It is at this juncture that Marxism should re-enter the picture. Its gross historical distortion when its adherents have been in power makes it close to delegitimized, but unless one believes that liberal capitalism is the pinnacle of human society, which this author does not, it is impossible to ignore Marxism’s contribution to a theory of historical progress and a just society.
The idea of victory over the oppression and injustice of capitalism must not be seen through the Marxist perspective as the use of terror and authoritarianism to suppress the elements of society that are actively opposed to seeing an emancipatory, radical progressive movement take power.
Instead, the position must be one that recognizes that the essential element in revolution and change is that these regressive factors are marginalized not necessarily by force but by lack of popularity and that they are the ones who use force to retain their power. To reiterate once again; any state will, to some degree, violate human rights as they are understood today. What makes such a position acceptable, to the extent that the state either openly violates human rights or rejects human rights as a concept, is the political ideology and project that it represents. That is to say, the important factor when using state power is that its reasoning is viable and legitimate, which includes but is not solely predicated on popularity and depends upon a case by case, situation specific study, and not simply silencing disagreeing elements of society.
In another sense, it must also be recognized that human rights are only part of the struggle for a just society and should be seen as a means towards an end instead of holding some sort of intrinsic quality in and of themselves. In any sense, human right are only used as a last recourse and are constitutive of a fearful, “last-resort,” society and politics. One only uses them when all other avenues have failed and there is some sort of redress to be taken into account. While it may be somewhat utopian, one must imagine for a society where redress and rights are no longer reality even if it is an impossibility. To imagine that human rights are the ultimate finality of the liberty and freedom of man is a gross negligence of the progress of history. In the interest of developing a new political ideology and project to overcome the modern “double blackmail,” the first step is to try to develop a new way to measure the successes or failures of a movement, state or ideology beyond human rights. Whether this emerges from the organic struggle or from a effort by theoretical scholars has yet to be determined.
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1.) See; Against The Double Blackmail by Slavoj Zizek (1999); http://www.egs.edu/faculty/zizek/zizek-against-the-double-blackmail.html
2.) Human Rights and Its Discontents by Slavoj Zizek, (1999); http://www.egs.edu/faculty/zizek/zizek-human-rights-and-its-discontents.html
3.) “Two Concepts of Liberty” in Four Essays on Liberty by Isaih Berlin (1958, Oxford).
4.) From Kosovo to Kabul by David Chandler (2002, London) pg. 114-115
5.)  Hegel’s Critique of Liberalism by Steven B. Smith (1989, Chicago) pg. 99
6.) Hegel’s Critique of Liberalism pg. 69
7.) Political Liberalism by John Rawls (1993, New York) pg. 151 n16
8.) The Parallax View by Slavoj Zizek (2006, London) pg. 339
9.) On The Jewish Question by Karl Marx (2009); http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/jewish-question/
10.) Critique of the Gotha Program by Karl Marx, Section I (1999); http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/gotha/index.htm
12.) See, for instance, Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (1967) or Leon Trotsky’s Their Morals and Ours (1938)
13.) The State and Revolution by Vladimir Lenin (1999), quoted in the chapter The Transition from Capitalism to Communism; http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/staterev/index.htm
14.) Terrorism and Communism by Leon Trotsky, Chapter 2 (2006); http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1920/terrcomm/ch02.htm
15.) It should be duly noted that when out of power, as a resistance movement or political opposition, Marxism has a dutiful history of working for human rights and claiming them in the face of repression. One needs only to look at the history of resistance to Fascism to see Marxism take such a leading role. Additionally, it would not be hard to argue that without a strong labor movement, largely influenced by Marxist theory, the rights that citizens enjoy in Western countries would not exist.
16.) The key difference between this viewpoint and that of Marxism is that Marxism sees the state not just as a dictatorship but as a class dictatorship. For more on this, see The General Will: Rousseau, Marx, Communism by Andrew Levine (1993); specifically Chapter 5, “The last state.”
17.) For an extended look at a history of Latin American populism, see; Populism in Latin America edited by Michael Conniff (1999 London)
18.) This term is largely problematic because of the implications associated with a certain, rigid conception of what economic “discipline” is. For neoliberals and institutions like the IMF it is considered following certain guidelines of what they deem necessary economic policies that may be uncomfortable for broad ranges of the population but necessary to gather revenue to pay off debt; hence the term “discipline.”
19.) Another problematic term. Who decides what “fiscal responsibility” means? Is it “responsible” to cut off social programs to pay off debt, as the IMF sees it, or are some seemingly unsustainable policies necessary for socioeconomic stability with the real fiscal issues laying in other areas, hidden to the ideology of the IMF? Recent history should point to the strength of the latter proposition.
20.) For an in depth look at the crisis and the role of neoliberalism, see Rise and Collapse of Neoliberalism in Argentina by Miguel Teubal (2004). Found here: http://www.hawaii.edu/hivandaids/Rise_and_Collapse_of_Neoliberalism_in_Argentina__The_Role_of_Economic_Groups.pdf
21.) For brief looks at the policies of Perón and Vargas, see, again, Conniff pgs. 22-43 and 43-63, respectively.
22.) While this declaration may seem controversial, there is hardly any doubt that the policies put into place by the first populist leaders were largely unsustainable--especially in the case of Perón--despite their good intentions or origins. While the original pretenses for these policies (their necessity, effectivity etc.) are up for debate, there is little controversy that they largely failed in their intentions and paved the way for the debt crisis of the 80s.
23.) For a look at this type of traditional academia, see; The Macroeconomics of Populism in Latin America by Dornbusch and Edwards (1991 Chicago). Dornbusch and Edwards see populism largely in economic terms such as redistribution, popular consumption, fiscal expansion all at the expense of macroeconomic stability.
24.) Conniff pgs. 4-7 (1999 London)
25.) From here forward, when speaking of populism it will be in the sense that it is “progressive” populism--a populism that is associated with electoral democracy and progressive economic policy.
26.) Populism and reform in Latin America by Tortuato Di Tella in Obstacles to Change in Latin America (1970) pgs. 47-74
27.) Ibid pg. 49
28.) Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory by Ernesto Laclau (1977 London), pgs. 143-198
29.) Ibid pgs. 172-173
30.) In Defense of Lost Causes by Slavoj Zizek (2008 London) pg. 277
31.) Ibid pg. 282
32.) Against the Populist Temptation by Slavoj Zizek (2006) pg. 5 http://www.lacan.com/zizpopulism.htm
33.) In Defense of Lost Causes pg. 304
34.) For instance, Perón’s “Justicialismo” was a slogan that simply stood for “economic growth and social justice.” Who is against economic growth and social justice? (Conniff pg. 5)
35.) In Defense of Lost Causes pg. 265
36.) Perón, for instance, was notorious for appointing loyalists to important positions of government, including but not limited to his appointment of a supporter to a previously independent position of party secretary of the largest Argentinean Union in May 1946. (Conniff pgs. 33-35)
37.) One of the most telling example of this coming in the form of the military coup in Brazil against Vargas in August 1954, leading to his suicide. (Conniff pg. 51)
38.) For a more specific look at the history and policies of the Chávez presidency up until 2007-2008, see Changing Venezuela by Taking Power by Gregory Wilpert (London, 2007) and Rethinking Venezuelan Politics by Steve Ellner (London 2008).
39.) Changing Venezuela by Taking Power pgs. 16-17
40.) “Additional measures approximating neoliberalism included austere fiscal policies, overvaluation of the local currency, and the retention of the neoliberal-inspired value added tax with the aim of avoiding inflation and shoring up international reserves.” Ellner pg. 112
41.) Ellner pg. 119
42.) Ellner pg. 121
43.) For instance, in the book Democracy and Revolution (London 2006), D.L. Raby states; “The Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela is still very much a dynamic and unfinished project, but already we can see in Chavez’ discourse the emergence of a coherent ‘foundational project,’ the ‘Socialism of the twenty-first century.” She goes on to write that populism can be revolutionary, but only if it’s social base is an “autonomous movement of the dominated classes and where its leader is a true representative of the movement.” pg. 256. It seems, from this perspective, that the conditions for revolutionary populism are “autonomy” and “true leadership”--two highly ambiguous qualifiers that can be interpreted a number of ways.
44.) Ellner pg. 128
45.) Without changing the logic of the system the oligarchy, the elites and the influences of imperialism will remain. The “oligarchs,” “imperialists” and “elites” are not functioning as evil outsiders intent on destroying Venezuela but instead are simply following the logical coordinates of a capitalist system. To identify them as “negative elements” that need to be purged from the purity of the whole is to exactly employ a populist discourse that, as we will see further on, leads to authoritarian tendencies that employ the use of Marxism’s theory of human rights but without a similar systemic analysis of change to back it up.
46.) “The emphasis [of endogenous development] is on agriculture (50%) and industrial production (30%), paying particular attention to achieving elf-sufficiency with regard to the production of food, clothes and shoes.” Wilpert pg. 79
47.) Ellner pg. 128
48.) Against the Populist Temptation (2006) pg. 7 n4
49.) Wipert pg. 193
“Much of the government’s spending has, in recent years, been carried out directly from PDVSA, the state oil company. For example, in the first three quarters of 2008 (January through September) PDVSA had $13.9 billion, or 6.1 percent of GDP in public expenditures.”
The Chávez Administrationat10Years:TheEconomyandSocialIndicatorsby MarkWeisbrot,RebeccaRayandLuisSandoval (Center for Economic and Policy Research, February 2009) pg. 17
50.) Wilpert pg. 82 (How these “ethical responsibilities” are to be monitored has not been detailed, but one can assume it will be through certain state regulations and inspections that would most likely employ highly ambiguous points of reference on ethical standards thus opening up the possibility of corruption.)
51.) Chávez Threatens to Jail Price Control Violators by Simon Romero, February 2007 in The New York Times; http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/17/world/americas/17venezuela.html?pagewanted=print
(The institution of price controls is largely populist because of its refusal to address the systemic nature of the problem. A populist in effect shoots the messenger when instituting price controls because its logic emerges out of a rationality that does not know why prices are so high and thus blames the agent of the last step of the production process, distribution and pricing, for corruption and criminal negligence. In effect, the populist says; “We don’t know why rice prices are so high, but they are and you are selling them higher than we told you to. Either fix the problem or we fine/nationalize you.”)
52.) Wilpert pg. 201
53.) Wilpert pg. 203 (Wilpert goes on to describe how Chávez has called ministers in the middle of the night to perform tasks and that, when faced with criticism, Chávez responds sometimes with “I remind you, you are speaking to the president.”)
54.) This is most notably highlighted by the infamous “Tascon List” which was essentially a blacklisting of opposition members from government industries and jobs following the coup and strike. (Wilpert pg. 205)
55.) Ellner pg. 147
56.) Wilpert pg. 49
57.) “Of the 61 ministers that have served in the Chávez government between 1999 and 2004, 16 (or 26%) were military officers. Also, Chávez supported the election of retired officers to numerous governor’s and mayor’s posts. Following the 2004 regional elections, of the country’s 24 governors, 22 belonged to the Chávez camp. Of these, nine (41%) have a military background.” (Wilpert pg. 49)
58.) Wilpert pg. 40
59.) During my trip to Venezuela, one of the most constant voices of concern was found in relation to the upcoming vote that would eliminate term limits for the presidency and other heads of local governments. The complaint was that leading up to the vote, the amount of propaganda related to campaigning distracted from other legitimate problems. People were told to wait until the end of the vote to voice their concerns and to focus on winning the “voting battle.” Additionally, many people I encountered sympathetic to Chávez mentioned that while they might be opposed to indefinite re-election, they could see no real alternative to Chávez and thus felt obligated to vote for the passage of the new law.
60.) Ellner pg. 111
61.) Wilpert pg. 21
62.) A Decade Under Chávez: Political Intolerance and Lost Opportunities for Advancing Human Rights in Venezuela by Human Rights Watch (September 18, 2008); http://www.hrw.org/en/node/64174/section/1
63.) Ibid pg. 2
64.) Ibid pg. 134
65.) Ibid pg. 137
66.) Ibid pg. 38-64
67.) This should not be read as the original intention of Marx in any sense. I use the term Marxist here to refer to, as discussed earlier, the historical record of Marxists when they have taken power with the Soviet Union obviously in the forefront of such a record.
68.) Smoke and Mirrors: An Analysis of Human Rights Watch’s Report on Venezuela by Gregory Wilpert (October 17th, 2008); http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/3882#_ftnref
70.) A Decade Under Chávez: Political Intolerance and Lost Opportunities for Advancing Human Rights in Venezuela pg. 15
71.) Ibid pg. 99
72.) Venezuela mulls tough media law, BBC news (July 31, 2009); http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/8177862.stm
73.) A Decade Under Chávez: Political Intolerance and Lost Opportunities for Advancing Human Rights in Venezuela pg. 134-197
74.) Changing Venezuela by Taking Power pgs. 53-64
75.) Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory pgs. 196-197
76.) Against the Populist Temptation pg. 17
77.) In Defense of Lost Causes pg. 304